Beth Hart’s dark period has made the light surrounding her new album even brighter
Beth Hart’s bio to this point in her 20-plus-year career is very nearly a blues cliché. A youthful beginning, doing great work while toiling in obscurity, struggling with alcohol and substances intended to keep her centered and grounded. It’s a boilerplate blues story, told many times with slight variations.
Thankfully, Hart’s recent triumphs have counterbalanced her ancient travails. Last December, Hart took the stage at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C., along with guitar icon Jeff Beck, and performed Etta James’ classic “I’d Rather Go Blind” to celebrate Kennedy Center honoree and blues legend Buddy Guy. Hart’s scorchingly soulful vocals and Beck’s sinewy guitar lines brought Guy and the audience to their feet; that performance has been added to the commercial pressing of Bang Bang Boom Boom (Provogue/Mascot), Hart’s powerfully diverse new album.
“That was pretty cool, wasn’t it?” says Hart with an incredulous laugh. “I couldn’t believe it! I was crying, watching it on YouTube.”
No less impressive is the range Hart exhibits on Bang Bang Boom Boom, her eighth studio set since her 1993 debut. While Hart retains her Joplin-esque blues style on Bang Bang—she wrote more than half of the songs alone—she folds elements of swing, jazz and pop into her thick blues gumbo. While she’s always been influenced by that broad spectrum, her work on Don’t Explain, her 2011 duet record with blues burner Joe Bonamassa, brought it to the surface.
“I’ve always been moved by different genres of music,” says Hart. “As a writer, I get bored fast, and I’m really afraid to repeat myself. I figure if I jump around to a lot of genres, there’s always going to be a different kind of lyric inspired; it’s going to stretch and challenge me. Ever since I did Don’t Explain with Joe, where I did styles that I’d never attempted before, but I’d been raised on—like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and Big Joe Turner, and especially Otis Redding and Etta James, that hardcore soul—it set off a bell in my head. I was like, ‘This is the time to embrace a new challenge.’”
Hart credits veteran producer Kevin Shirley for much of Bang Bang’s success. Hart met Shirley during the Don’t Explain sessions; she was so impressed that she asked her manager to schedule him for her next album. Bang Bang would clearly have been a different animal without Shirley’s input, both sonically and philosophically.
“One thing I love particularly about working with Kevin is he works old-school fast,” says Hart. “When you come in, you’re going to record three to five songs that day. I was young; I hated the studio, because you’d first get the drum sound, and that would take two weeks, then you’d layer in the bass and guitar, then you sang to the track in your earphones. I never felt the pounding of the drum or the bass amp kicking my ass like when you’re onstage. Kevin did all that (live). When it came time, I sent him about 20 songs, but I sent him a lot of co-writing. He called me and said, ‘Knowing you, you’re hiding songs from me that you’ve written on your own, and I want to hear them. This isn’t about you getting on the radio or trying to please the record company. You’ve got to do what you love and believe in.’ That’s another thing I love about him: total artistic integrity.”
Shirley’s other major contribution to Bang Bang is a crack band comprised of guitarist Randy Flowers, bassist Michael Rhodes and keyboardist Arlan Schierbaum, along with drummers Anton Fig, Curt Bisquera and Herman Matthews, among others. Hart planned to use own band in the studio, but Shirley insisted on his session aces.
“He was adamant,” says Hart. “He said, ‘I do records fast. I know exactly what I want. I want to do anything that makes you happy, Beth, but I need you to trust me on this.’ He said, ‘I’m going to surround you with phenomenal players that, if you’ve written a song that morning, you can play it; they’ll learn it on the spot, we can do a couple passes, and you’ll have the song.’ I was like, ‘OK, that sounds great.’”
The core of Bang Bang is Hart’s deeply reflective and beautifully framed songs. Combined with the album’s short time frame and the band’s ability to immediately interpret Hart’s intentions, Bang Bang became a very in-the-moment project, and in that sense, she sees the album as a new beginning.
“I started on piano and was like, ‘Whoa, I don’t know what I’m doing’” says Hart. “Then I read an article with a quote from Leonard Bernstein, and he said, ‘When you stumble across a whole new way to do your craft, and you don’t know what you’re doing, enjoy every minute. What you’re about to write, you’ll never get to do again. It’s all coming from a fresh, challenging, totally in-the-dark, humbled place.’ That’s when ‘Swing My Thing’ was written.”
After a dozen years of sobriety, Hart is enjoying one of the most satisfying and fruitful periods of her career. In the late ’90s, she was poised to become a blues superstar, but she also teetered on the brink of being America’s Amy Winehouse, a supernaturally talented voice silenced all too soon.
“I think there was a spiritual intervention with God,” says Hart. “At my worst, it was five psych wards that year, and three rehabs. I didn’t really want to be around; I was just too scared to take myself out. But I was really hoping that I would die. I felt so ashamed.”
Looking back on darker days, Hart credits her mother’s strength and her husband Scott Guetzkow’s unconditional love with pulling her back from the edge. In 2000, she kicked her alcohol and prescription-medication dependencies (Dr. Drew Pinksy was her rehab medic, long before he was the star shrink), but then ignored her doctors who warned her that the worst was still ahead.
“I got great,” says Hart with a weary laugh. “I came all the way back. I was exercising, eating well, taking vitamins, going to lots of meetings, sober; I didn’t have the -ism to want to use, I was married, I made Leave The Light On. I told my doctors, ‘See, I told you.’ And they said, ‘No, kid, you’re a time bomb. You haven’t even peaked with this illness yet.’ They were right. When I hit 35, I made 37 Days, and at 36, I lost more touch with reality than I ever had. I didn’t get back on drugs or drinking; I just completely lost touch. That was really scary.”
Hart’s subsequent breakdown was almost as devastating as her substance abuse. A new psychiatrist found a better pharmacological cocktail to treat Hart’s bipolar symptoms, and now she’s in the best mental and physical shape of her life. With an extensive supporting tour for Bang Bang Boom Boom planned, and her second collaboration with Bonamassa nearly finished, Hart bristles with the energy of a boxer in the corner of the ring, bouncing in anticipation of the bell.
“When I finished this record, before I went in and recorded with Kevin, I looked at the work, and I noticed, for the first time, I had so much more positive love for myself and my life,” she says. “I saw it come across in songs like ‘Swing My Thing’ and ‘Spirit Of God.’ Also I was talking about being in love with my husband and expressing my appreciation for that love. I don’t think I’d ever done that before, and it was a really cool surprise.”
2 replies on “Beth Hart: Here Comes The (Bang) Boom”
Beth always gives a great interview! Been listening to her for maybe 14 years now and have traveled all over the country to see her live shows! So great to see her getting so much DESERVED recognition for her talent! If you have never heard her music check her out, you won’t be disappointed! She covers all different genres and still manages to sound like Beth and no one else!
Beth; you are my inspiration and I admire your courage to go further & believing in your self & always want to go forward…
leaving your comfort zone en dare to grow.
I also have an psyciatric disorder and when I want to give up; I listen to your beautifull piano play en your beautifull and honesty lyrics about your self and some songs seems to tell my story..
I watch you growing and getting stronger and stronger…
you leave your light on me…thank you!!! xxx